Saturday, August 10, 2013

Graffiti Wars

I watched a fascinating program on SBS a few weeks ago. It was called Graffiti Wars. As the name suggests, it was about a feud between noted street artists Banksy and King Robbo.

The whole program is available on You Tube at:

Graffiti: Street Art or Vandalism?

There will always be differing views and outlooks on graffiti. Is it the work of mindless vandals or creative practitioners? Is some graffiti better than others. What criteria are used to decide what to keep and what to paint over? 

The aim of this Bytes is not to argue the merits, or otherwise, of street art. Regular readers will know that I have a fascination with some of the better quality items and that I am impressed by art brought to the people in lieu of being kept hidden on the walls of rich people. I also like street art that is creative, original, challenging, questioning and that makes one think.

Blek le Rat:

The first dramatis personae introduced in the Graffiti Wars documentary is Xavier Prou (1952 - , nicknamed Blek le Rat, a name derived from Blek, a leader of a group of revolutionaries during the American War of Indpendence. That in turn gave rise to a comic called Blek la Ron. Prou was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris and has been described as the “Father of Stencil Graffiti”.

Prou began his street art in 1981 by painting stencils of rats on the street walls of Paris. He described the rat as "the only free animal in the city" and one which "spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art"

Blek was influenced by the early graffiti art of New York City but chose a style he considered more appropriate to the architecture of Paris. Blek began using stencils for street art, the first to use life sized ones and the first to transform stencilling from numbers and letters to pictorial. After having been arrested in 1991 whilst stencilling a replica of Carvaggio's Madonna and Child, he worked exclusively with pre-stencilled posters, being quicker to apply and a lesser penalty if caught.

Some Blek stencilled street art:

Blek has had a great influence of today's graffiti art and street art, both in terms of utilising such art for social consciousness and in bringing art to the people. One example of the social consciousness theme is his series on the homeless:


Originally a freehand Bristol street artist who began street painting in 1990, Banksy has become an internationally known street artist who is also successful as a straight artists. Initially incorporating stencil art in his work, by 2000 Banksy was doing exclusively stencil street art after realising how much quicker it could be done. Unlike his identity, which remains hidden, his works have become well known and feature rats, apes, policemen, soldiers, children, and the elderly with messages that are usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment. 

As Banksy’s public profile has increased the value of his works has soared, so much so that exhibitions of his works have quickly sold out at high prices. Celebrity collectors have boosted sales and prices. This has also placed local councils in a quandary: do they paint over the works as vandalism or do they allow the works to remain, given their value and publicity? Do councils decide which works are obliterated and which remain and, if so, what are the criterai?

Banksy’s success has led to criticisms of having sold out the street art movement yet, at the same time, his prominence has given rise to the Banksy Effect, the focusing of attention on a wider range of street artists.

Some Banksy works:

Banksy has acknowledged Blek’s influence on his work: "Every time I think I've painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier."

Initially Blek expressed disagreement with allegations that Banksy copied his work: "People say he copies me, but I don’t think so. I’m the old man, he’s the new kid, and if I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it. I feel what he is doing in London is similar to the rock movement in the Sixties."

In Graffiti Wars, Blek took a different tone, stating, "When I see Banksy making a man with a child or Banksy making rats, of course I see immediately where he takes the idea. I do feel angry. When you’re an artist you use your own techniques. It’s difficult to find a technique and style in art so when you have a style and you see someone else is taking it and reproducing it, you don’t like that. I’m not sure about his integrity. Maybe he has to show his face now and show what kind of guy he is."

King Robbo: 

English underground graffiti artist King Robbo began his street art activities in 1985 by painting his first train. His feud with Banksy brought him increased recognition, as well as focusing attention on issues associated with graffiti and street art. That feud is the subject of Graffiti Wars.

Part 2 next week: The Feud

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